Our latest bus journey was supposed to be super smooth. We woke up early to make sure it would be a two bus adventure instead of three. We even arrived at the second bus station and jumped on our next bus with relative ease. Perhaps I jinxed us when I said “Wow, this hasn’t been bad at all!” to Andrew as we pulled out of the station. And then several hours passed, and we still weren’t where we were supposed to be. On a map, it’s approximately a three hour journey. Factor in a bus change, and a few road-side pick-ups (of passengers) and sure, an extra hour or even an hour and a half seems reasonable. But SIX AND A HALF HOURS?!? No, six and a half hours from Puerto Lopez to Canoa was not reasonable. By the time we got into Canoa Andrew sat down at the first restaurant we saw while I went in search of a baño. Somehow, I ended up in someone’s outhouse in their backyard (with their permission) while Andrew ordered fish and rice for us to eat around the corner. It was nearing dusk by the time we got to our beachfront hotel and we were too tired to do anything other than jump in the ocean to cool off and then immediately lay down before our next round of Spanish classes started in the morning.
It’s so interesting to travel through these quiet, little coastal towns in Ecuador after traveling through bigger tourist attractions in Peru. Since arriving in Olón, and traveling from Olón to Puerto Lopez today, it’s as if we hit the slow motion button or something similar… The bus to Puerto Lopez was relatively quick and painless and when we arrived and walked on the quiet beach we were slightly surprised at how deserted the town felt. The town was quiet. The streets did not feel well traveled. Every other building was empty, closed, or crumbling down. More restaurants and bars (than in Olón) sat on the beach, and although most were open, few patrons were seen. We walked up and down the beachfront street, had some ceviche that made us miss Peru (where the servings are bigger, spicier, and generally much more flavorful), and we made a reservation for a whale watching tour in the morning!
Border crossings are the worst. Border crossings when the warnings are not to cross overnight by bus because you might get gassed and robbed are especially the worst. Border crossings when your only other alternative is to go during the day by bus, and spend the night in the most dangerous city in Ecuador, Guayaquil, are even worse. Yes. Worse than the worst. It would be an understatement to say that Andrew and I were not looking forward to the Peru Ecuador bus ride, border crossing, nor the night in Guayaquil. And then, when we were chastised by the Peruvian passport control agent for calling him out on over-charging us for our visa over stay… well it just got… you guessed it… worse.
We weren’t planning on overstaying our visa in Peru, but then we decided to study Spanish for a week in Cusco and found out we only had to pay a dollar for each day we overstayed. Not a big deal. We only stayed five days over, so we would only have to pay $5.00 each. But when we arrived at the Peru Ecuador border crossing at Huaquillas, the agent decided we had to pay $6.00 instead. We pulled up our calendars, counted off the days, thinking it was a simple mistake and he would agree to charge us the correct amount. He didn’t agree, and when I asked why he was charging us more, he got angry.
Not only did he get angry, but he told us to go back to the bank (20 kilometers back in Peru) in town to pay the amount we wanted to pay, instead of “trusting” him and paying more. Not possible, I don’t think our bus driver, nor the other passengers would have indulged us in saving two dollars. However, had we had our own car, you better believe I would have gone back into town to pay the lesser fine, simply out of spite. He tried to pull the same scam on another person, except this person must have had his own car. He walked out of line and headed towards his car instead of forking over the extra money (for the agent’s pocket) and crossing into Ecuador.
We arrived in Guayaquil right as it was getting dark, and anxiously hoped for a late bus to Olón. Not possible. Instead, we headed to the food court where we were able to hop on an open wifi signal and book a room for the night. We ate, and then busted a move to a taxi that dropped us off at our hotel where we stayed put. We didn’t want to chance walking around in the dark, and someone coming up and putting us in a choke hold until we passed out so they could rob us before we came to. I wish I was joking. This warning actually made me nostalgic for India, where one warning was “Watch out for someone throwing poop on your shoes, so they can clean them for a fee!”
We were told to be at the Kampala Coach office a half hour before our departure time at 3:00. We arrived a little before 2:30 and waited. And waited some more. Moved outside next to the bus, and waited some more. Men were packing the undercarriage of the bus, shoving as much as possible into the storage cabins, kicking the door shut, and then gathering additional men to help secure the latch so it wouldn’t bust open on the road. It was amusing at first, but after an hour of the same routine, it became annoying and we were ready to go. Our “business luxury” bus was as dirty as an overnight bus in India and was two hours behind schedule. We wouldn’t arrive in Arusha until at least 22 hours after we left Kampala.
It was close to midnight when we reached our first border crossing (Uganda/Kenya). I feel in a small (small) way that I’ve grown accustomed to sketchy border crossings at this point in the trip. While everyone crowded in the brightly lit Ugandan passport control, I took in the long line and shoved my bag into Andrew’s hands and went out into the dark to look for a ladies room. This is a bit tricky. When there are no lights and people milling about in the middle of the night, it’s a gamble of who you’re going to ask for help or directions. I always assume my ‘I ain’t scared’ face and sometimes hum I won’t deny it, I’m straight rider, you don’t want to mess with me… (only Tupac didn’t sing ‘mess’ and neither did I)
I settled on the two guards outside of the ATM booth. This might have been a mistake as they proved to be creepier than their uniforms deemed them to be. I politely asked where the toilet was. They didn’t look up until I repeated it a few more times, a few more different ways, making it clear that I wasn’t going anywhere until I got an answer.
“Money” One of them eventually replied. (Sometimes bathrooms do cost money, and I gladly pay – when they are clean and there’s tissue. Ok, they are hardly ever clean, and only sometimes is there tissue. But I’m almost always prepared with my own.) I was in a bit of a rush and was slightly annoyed that they were informing me that there was indeed a bathroom, but it cost money.
“Yes. I know. Where. is. it?” I tried to ask patiently.
“Money.” The one demanded again. At this point I realized he was asking for money for directions. He obviously didn’t realize who he was talking to. I became indignant, and considered briefly what would happen if I peed inside his ATM booth. Ok, not really. I wouldn’t do that. But I might have made him a little bit nervous standing in front of him not handing over any money knowing full well I could go wherever I wanted, if I really wanted to. He sighed and waved his arm behind him. Which really, didn’t help at all, but I went and eventually found where I needed to go and got back to Andrew before he started to worry- er, more than he probably already was, but didn’t admit to. I relayed my story briefly before the Israeli guy on our bus relayed his story of almost getting ripped off exchanging money. I think we were all more surprised by the fact that none of us were surprised by the antics of the men loitering around the passport control.
Crossing into Kenya was not only sketchy, but turned frustrating on the Kenyan side when we learned we couldn’t pay for our visa in American bills printed before 2005. This is advertised nowhere and I pity the fool (me) who rolls up to the counter with a perfectly crisp $100 with 2004 stamped on it. Luckily, Andrew had a more recent bill and we were able to get back on our bus heading to Nairobi.
I didn’t think it was possible for dirt roads to be any worse than they were in Uganda… But in Kenya, they turned out to be much, much worse. We stopped in Nairobi for a brief twenty minutes before riding all morning towards Tanzania.
The Kenya/Tanzania crossing was uneventful, save for the giant groups of Americans standing in line and shouting their conversations all over the place. I leaned over to Andrew and whispered, “I get it. I get why people don’t think we’re American now…” We aren’t traveling in a pack of upper middle-class white people. We aren’t wearing American sports jerseys. Our gym-shoes aren’t bright white. We don’t have a guide with us to help us fill out our visa forms. Our backpacks are dirty. And not ‘Oh we just went on safari, look at this smudge of dirt on my awesome new travel pack.’ They. are. dirty. Like a dog peed on mine in India, I washed it in the UAE, but I’m pretty sure dogs would mark their territory on the front pocket if I let them. dirty. Maybe sometimes not looking American is a bad thing… but as proud as I am to be ‘merican, I’m glad I don’t come across the same way the obvious Americans do.
We arrived in Arusha early in the afternoon and after getting settled in a room at a busy hostel just outside of the downtown ‘Clocktower’ area, we walked into town for lunch. Along the way, a middle-aged western woman approached me and said “You need to wear your backpack on both shoulders. This is a dangerous area.”
“Oh, thank you. I know. I’m just terribly tired and we’re not going far, but thank you.” I responded, knowing full well it could get stolen, but that I was a big girl. who was tired. But she was just trying to be nice. At least, until she reached around my back and pulled the strap up over my other shoulder and said “No. Really. You need to wear both shoulder straps here.” She walked away sighing, no doubt, at what she assumed was how dumb I was.
My initial reaction was along the lines of ‘that was weird.’ And then I ate a meal for the first time in 24 hours.
“What. just. happened out there? Did she really reach around me to pull my backpack strap up over my free shoulder?” I asked Andrew.
I can understand someone being nice and suggesting care over one’s self and bags. Not that I would ever do so in the same manner that she did… But I can see the motivation for doing so, wanting to be a good samaritan of sorts. But I am 30 years old. THIRTY! I think I can take responsibility of my backpack on one or both shoulders by this point. But I KNOW she walked away judging me as I eased one strap off my shoulder again.
I wondered how old she thought I was. Would she have treated me differently if she knew I my age? If she knew I’ve been traveling around the world for six months now. After traveling for two months by myself throughout S.E. Asia. After living in foreign countries (four in total, if you count the two from studying abroad in college) for six -maybe seven- years.
“Don’t you know I have my head on a swivel, motherfunny?” Andrew said (only he didn’t say ‘motherfunny’) once upon a time in India and it’s always stuck with me. I wish I would have said that to this woman. I wish I would have told her not to talk to a thirty year old like myself, as if I was thirteen. I wish I would have asked her what made her turn into Little Ms. Bossypants with another white girl in the middle of a small town in Tanzania.
“She’s probably gone home to her husband complaining about the stupid young tourist who is probably going to get her bag stolen today…” I sighed. “And now, my bag probably will get stolen…” I thought out loud after my tangent to Andrew about all of the above…
It didn’t. It still might. But at least it didn’t in Arusha.
We had planned to go to Sihanoukville directly after our stay in Takeo. Four years ago, I missed out on this beach town and I was envious of travelers who I had met who gushed over how calm and pretty it was. I really wanted to go this time around to check it out. We actually spent the whole week debating how we were going to get there. We could take the bus back to Phnom Penh and then take another bus to Sihanoukville: $8.00 each for about a six hour day of transport. OR we could take a shared taxi directly from Takeo to Sihanoukville: $20.00 each for about a three hour day of transport. We went back and forth. Takeo was so cheap for us to stay the week, but $12.00 could pay for a night in an air-conditioned room in Cambodia!
“Why not go to Kampot instead?” Some new travelers to NFO suggested.They agreed with what everyone had said, Sihanoukville is no longer the calm, untouched town it was when I was in Cambodia last. So, we changed our minds and decided to go to Kampot via a shared mini-bus for $5.00. We laughed when we squeezed in among 18 other passengers in the shared mini-bus. Luckily, not all passengers were traveling the full hour to Kampot, and by the time we arrived in town, there were only 8 of us sitting comfortably in the mini-bus.
We were told it would be easy to walk from the drop off point to find different guesthouses in town or along the river. We weren’t told that the mini-bus might drop us off at a diffferent location, farther away from the round-about that was our point of reference. It was steadily raining when we arrived, we had already told the tuk-tuk drivers (that were asking if we needed a ride through the mini-bus window before we even came to a complete stop) that “NO! We don’t need a ride!” but after walking for 5 minutes in the rain, we really had no clue where we were going. I knew we weren’t going far, so I hollered after Andrew that I was getting into a tuk-tuk. We climbed in, I thought we were going to one guest-house, Andrew gave directions to another, and then the tuk-tuk driver totally ripped us off . (Btw, Cambodia operates on dollars and riels- so it’s always a bit tricky when you go to pay in a different currency than what was stated, and you almost always get change in both currencies. I know, it’s weird.) $3.00 for a tuk-tuk ride that should have been $1.00!?! And I know, it’s only $2.00, right? But in Cambodia, it’s different, and when I know I’m getting ripped off, these huge red flags go up and I get defensive.
So, we’re standing outside the tuk-tuk, Andrew is trying to get the driver down to $2.00, I’m asking the girl who came out of the guest-house how much it would be for one night, listening to Andrew get ripped off, and the girl says it’s a whole $8.00, I freak out. In my head, all I could think about was how Ernesto told us a room (at the guesthouse I thought we were going to) would be $5.00 and all I could think about was “Great. This woman is watching us get ripped off by the tuk-tuk driver, and thinks she can rip us off too… No. No. No, I’m not staying here for $8.00. I told her we could stay elsewhere for $5.00, but she didn’t budge. I stood under my umbrella indignant as all hell and she came down to $7.00, but no more. And then I made us walk across town, in the rain, to stay at the $5.00 a room guesthouse because I’m too stubborn for my own good. I could barely walk because my flip-flops were soaked and slippery, my Nalgene bottle smacking my legs hanging down from a zipper because my (horrible Osprey) backpack doesn’t have adequate water-bottle pockets, my tri-pod mount fell off my camera that was dangling from my arm – because I couldn’t fit it into my (horrible Osprey) backpack, so I practically fell over trying to pick it up out of a puddle, all while Andrew walked at least 30 steps ahead of me because a. his legs are twice as long as mine and b. he gets over-eager about finding places and doesn’t always remember to wait for my 12” shorter self to keep pace with him.
We got there, and the $5.00 a night room had a broken ceiling fan, so we decided to move to the $6.00 a night room with a working fan. So, in sum, I made us walk across town, in the rain, miserable, to save a whole $0.50 each. I am (not at all) awesome. Worse, we had lunch at the guesthouse restaurant and it was ridiculously over-priced, and not very good, especially compared to the amazing meal we had for dinner elsewhere. I pouted about our lack of solid communication, the tuk-tuk driver ripping us off, and my own stubbornness. We agreed to make sure we are on the same page about where we’re staying in the future, and I took a much needed nap. A short sleep, and a respite from the rain made me feel loads better. We walked to Rikitikitavi, a restaurant Matt recommended to us that proved to be amazing (and cheaper than the food at our guesthouse, I might add).
The rain stopped me from a walk to the post office the day before. I also needed a break from dragon shipping disappointment. Had I known I would LOVE the Cambodia Post so much, I would not have worried so much! We arrived, and after they eyed my box, informed me that it was too large, and they would re-pack its contents into a Cambodia Post box. All items had to be shipped in a Cambodia Post box. I sighed, opened my box, pulled out the dragon and let them see for themselves what I was dealing with. They tried – unsuccessfully – to put it into their regulation Cambodia Post box. And then, magically, they handed it back to me and said to put my dragon back in my box. They would cover my box with Cambodia Post boxes! I could have kissed them. All of them.
They got to work covering my box with another layer of Cambodian cardboard, and asked me where I got the dragon. We explained what happened, and they smiled when I repeatedly thanked them for their help. Shipping cost a little more than what the dragon cost in the first place, it has enough cardboard around it to hopefully survive the slow boat home, and should arrive in about 2-3 months. Yay!
me: Ohmigod, it’s like the weight of a dragon has been lifted off my shoulders!
Andrew: More like the bulk of one…
After the post office, we walked through the Central Market, got bus tickets to Takeo, lunch, and then waited for what felt like forever at the very crowded and busy station for our bus.
A fairly painless two hours later, we arrived in Takeo and were immediately bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers. Per our tuk-tuk rule, we never agree to a ride when someone hounds us. Usually we stroll around until we find one lounging in his ride and we ask him for a lift. Also, we thought it might be possible to walk to the Volunteer Center. Not only did the tuk-tuk drivers get on the bus before we got off, they asked us a couple of times while we got our backpacks, and then drove their tuk-tuks up to us four meters away from the bus to ask again. As Andrew laughed about later, I do admit, I kinda lost it.
me: Why you ask 5 times if we want tuk-tuk?
tuk-tuk driver: I want to know if you need tuk-tuk.
me: ONE time, you ask if I need tuk-tuk. I said NO. TWO times, you ask if I need tuk-tuk. I said NO. THREE times, you ask if I need tuk-tuk. I said NO. FOUR times you ask if I need tuk-tuk. And I SAID NO! NOW FIVE TIMES?!? FIVE TIMES YOU ASK IF I NEED TUK-TUK!?!? NOOO!!! (and maybe, ok, I did, pretend to physically pull my hair out of my head at this point)
The tuk-tuk driver laughs. I turn around to more laughter and it’s another tuk-tuk driver and I point to him and say “YOU TOO! NO TUK TUK!” and he laughs too, and they leave us alone.
And then we got lost walking.
But then the only foreign tuk-tuk driver passes us by, turns around and asks where we’re going. He’s from New Futures (where we were headed), and gives us a ride to what turned out to be a couple of kilometers to the center. Even if Jake hadn’t pulled up, you know I would have stubbornly walked 2 kilometers with the 50 pounds of backpack weight on my back instead of tracking them down for a ride.
When we left Korea, I shipped three years of my life home in boxes of all sizes. Big boxes of bedding, shoes, books I couldn’t part with, even bags of 쌈장 and 된장 (Korean bean pastes) I couldn’t foresee finding in Kentucky and living without. (Not having immediate access to Korean food has been a struggle for both of us already.) When we left Hoi An, a few days ago, we sent a box home of things we brought, or already bought, and didn’t need, and Andrew’s new suit. Not a problem! My dragon, on the other hand proved to be a big. big. problem.
When we got to the Post Office, I left Andrew to write out postcards and walked up to counter 7, where the man eyed my dragon suspiciously and tried to fit it into a box. “Too big!” He declared. “Cannot send. This is the biggest size box you can ship to USA. Cannot send. Go to counter 8.”
Counter 8 turned out to be the DHL counter. They told me I needed a box first. They sent me back to counter 7 for a box.
Counter 7 shook his head at me. “Too big! Cannot send!” he barked. I shook my head to assure him I understood, and asked for a box. He eyed me suspiciously, but took my dragon, and put two printer boxes together to make a new bigger box, fit the dragon right in, and demanded the equivalent of $5.00 for his handiwork.
Back at Counter 8, they shook their head and said it would be very expensive. Wrote down $211.00 on a piece of paper and said it would take 3-5 days. I asked for something slower (cheaper) and they sent me to Counter 6. Counter 6 sends me back to Counter 7. Counter 7 barks at me again, “Too big! No! Cannot send! Go Counter 8!” I go back, to Counter 8. They look at the box again, then do some calculations again, and then they write $593.00 on the same piece of paper they wrote $211.00 on previously. I look at them like they must have made a mistake. I asked for something slower. They informed me they only did express shipping. I pointed to $211.00 and asked what happened. They pointed to $593.00 and waited for me to magically understand. I told them I could not pay $593.00 and plopped my box down next to Andrew, who was – throughout this whole ordeal- still sitting in the middle of the three counters writing out postcards.
“It’s not possible. I can’t send it.” I told him, close to tears, again. (Have I mentioned my emotions have been a little heightened this first month of travel?)
He gets up, takes the box to Counter 6. Gets sent to Counter 7, where the same postal clerk looks at me like I must be missing something in the head. “I’m sorry! Too big! Cannot send!” he tells Andrew. Andrew tries to explain how light it is and asks again why they can’t send it. Counter 7 ignores him. Andrew doesn’t budge. I try to hide, until I eventually see Andrew get sent to Counter 8. The girls at Counter 8 have disappeared. I convince Andrew that it’s not possible, and we take our dragon to the agency where we booked our bus tickets to Cambodia.
The girls at the tour guide agency demand to know what is in the box. I say “Dragon!” and I do the dance. They shake their heads and say we have to talk to the bus driver, maybe the box is too big, and we cannot take it with us. I make the executive decision that I will wear the dragon head on the 5 hour bus ride if I have to. Andrew makes the executive decision to get a motorbike so we can pile as many boxes as we’d like on the back. We walk up to the bus drivers. There are at least five of them. They all look at me suspiciously until one asks what is in the box. “Dragon!” I said again, and again, I do the dance. “Ohhh…” and they respond in Vietnamese, and do the dance. “Yes!” I cry, relieve to see them smiling. One of them demands $10.00, and I say “No way!” and they laugh, repeated “No way!” to each other and put the dragon under the bus.
“Maybe we should just take the dragon with us around the world.” I suggested to Andrew once we got on the bus.
“Maaaybe…” He replied, unconvinced.
It wasn’t an exciting day, to say the least. We woke up in Nha Trang after 12 hours or so on an overnight bus from Hoi An. I’ve heard mostly terrible things about Nha Trang (muggings namely, but the deaths of two former English Teachers in Korea didn’t help matters) so despite it having beautiful beaches, I didn’t want to stay. Also, I didn’t want to be on a bus for my birthday. As it turned out, neither bus (there were two) were all that bad. They were only about 1/3 full, and we were able to stretch out and play musical bus seats when we wanted to sit up or lay down.
Patience is a virtue that I’m constantly improving upon while traveling. In the past, I didn’t remember the bus from Nha Trang to Saigon taking as long. Then I realized, the Vietnamese kid we picked up in the middle of nowhere, and then dropped off in the middle of nowhere probably had something to do with it. Annoyed, after being on a bus for nearly 23 hours at this point, I wanted to give the driver a piece of my mind, but it’s Vietnam. I don’t speak Vietnamese. He doesn’t speak English. What can you do?